A different point of view

30th March 2007 at 01:00
How a messy shopkeeper and an incredible machine that shrinks people to the size of insects are inspiring a new generation of writers. Philippa White reports.

Julie Markendale's reception class is crouched around the edge of the carpet. They want Mrs Hope, a shopkeeper, to see her birthday surprise and the tension is growing. Wearing her "Mrs Hope" cardigan, Julie comes down a flight of imaginary stairs and surveys her newly-tidied, imaginary shop.

"It's horrible," she says, bursts into tears and runs out of the room.

"Their little faces," remembers Julie. "They were all convinced that Mrs Hope would come down and be really pleased. Not one had thought she might be upset about it."

But this is one of the many learning points in the project - understanding other people's points of view.

The children at Wharton Primary in Little Hulton, Salford, Greater Manchester, were at a key point acting out a story from a new book by Sharon and Paul Ginnis called Covering the Curriculum with Stories: six cross-curricular projects that teach literacy and thinking through dramatic play.

Mrs Hope's shop is the simplest project but it covers a wide range of disciplines and introduces pupils to some complex ideas. Julie spent a week setting the scene through various shopping-related activities that covered literacy, numeracy, history, geography, PSHE and art.

In the second week, they started role playing, following the comic story of general store owner Mrs Hope, her messy shop and her customers, including Katy Kind who decides they should creep into the shop one night and tidy up for her.

Julie stopped the story at various points - by taking off her cardigan - to talk about how the characters might be feeling, making birthday cards for Mrs Hope, or drawing a plan of the shop. At the end of the project, the children recorded themselves retelling the story.

"I saw that as a big step forward because some of the children couldn't structure a story before," says Julie. "I was amazed at their recall and the detail they put in."

Janice Carter, who teaches Year 1 at the same school, did the project with her class and says it was one of the highlights of her 30-year teaching career.

"The idea of learning through stories is not new, but this went a lot deeper and wider," she says. "It's nice to have something to rekindle that enthusiasm because you get weighed down by paperwork and bureaucracy. To have something that gives the children the freedom to go where they want is terrific."

Anna McNamara, an early years co-ordinator at Moorside Primary in nearby Swinton, is doing The Incredible Shrinking Machine project with 20 children from her nursery class.

The story is about a machine in the garden of Mrs Leszcyck that shrinks people to the size of small insects.

Anna wants to give her nursery children the chance for purposeful "emergent writing" - assigning meaning to marks on a page. They enjoy making lists of garden jobs to do and are currently writing letters with suggestions on how to escape from a spider's web. The classroom has been transformed with garden-related activities, and now Anna is planning another six weeks' work from the story based on her own spin-off ideas.

Author Sharon Ginnis has helped deputy head Helen Wilson create her own story projects at St James Primary in St Helier, Jersey. Helen's pupils, mostly boys, have emotional, behavioural and social difficulties and often don't like writing.

Their imaginations have been sparked, however, by three story-based projects on pirates, Egyptians and Neolithic life.

"In the past we have got half a page of writing from them," says Helen.

"Now they are doing three sides of A4 on their own. It's a real joy to see a child who is a reluctant writer so excited about writing."

Covering the Curriculum With Stories, by Sharon and Paul Ginnis, comes with a resources CD from Crown House Publishing Ltd, pound;24.99

Tips for teachers

Spend time on setting the scene and building belief to help children engage with the setting, characters and circumstances

Don't be scared of acting in the drama - you can introduce problems, add detail and depth, prompt deeper thinking, hold the group together and manage the pace

Get the children used to coming in and out of their roles so you can pause the action for other activities

Try "hot-seating" different characters. You, or the children, take turns at playing a character and answering questions from their point of view.

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